This is no. 96 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I do not consider myself a craft expert, but I do consider myself an aficionado of the dumb stuff that makes me laugh. Television plots centered on easily solved miscommunications? Check. Dogs that look like they’re smiling? Oh yeah. Writing that asks me to unpack the joke, repackage it, and then try to resell it as a brand-new product? Oh baby, absolutely yes.
There is something compelling about the standard joke format. What is the “standard” joke, you might ask? The best way to describe it is to consider the Dad Joke. Think of puns and silly wordplay. Or the Man Walks Into a Bar format. It’s the knock-knock joke your weird uncle tells at a family barbeque, one you wind up telling your kids years later. It’s the joke that gets modified with each retelling. Its primary purpose is simply that: retelling.
How many ways can you write the joke and still get a laugh?
For example, when I was growing up, my family inherited an ancient computer from my elderly aunt. She had managed to download a virus before gifting it to us, so its main use became listening to an animated bird do an abbreviated stand-up routine. Pete the Repeat Parrot fluttered in vibrant green-pink-yellow, squawking his fool head off, desperate to tell you his one and only zinger. Here is that joke:
“Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?”
Obviously, the answer here (and the joke itself) is found in the Repeat. But the humor came from the trajectory of the experience: It was funny at first because hey, it’s an unexpected joke. After a while, it became funny because our parents got so angry every time the bird popped up and disrupted their work. Further down the line, it was funny for a different reason entirely: The joke embedded itself in the language of our family. “Stop being such a Pete the Repeat,” I’d say when my brother was being especially annoying. The joke expanded, more fascinating than the original. It became its own story and contained its own plot trajectory.
I think about this a lot in my work. How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new? Gifting them the same bit, but a different experience of it? Often this means I need to situationally experience jokes for the first time as my characters experience them. Humor is subjective; it requires background to understand how any person would receive something as funny. As I write, I understand that even if the joke isn’t funny to the characters in the scene, it retains humor for the reader.
Another example: the scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020) in which a large mattress is unexpectedly delivered during a dinner party. It’s left awkwardly on the entryway rug and no one knows what to do with it. There’s the joke setup. Later on, a guest at the dinner party exits the entryway bathroom and trips over the mattress, which was not there when he initially entered. That is a use of the mattress in a different comedic way, yet it is still the same joke: weird mattress where it shouldn’t be. The party continues along with the mattress, which gets used as the site of further hilarity. There are drunken secrets told on it, even an impromptu karaoke dance session occurs on its quilted top. Same joke, repackaged and retold to great and hilarious effect.
When considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event. If you can get the joke to put on a fake mustache and successfully reenter the party they have already been kicked out of, perhaps it is worth letting them stick around a while longer. Let them spike the punch. See what other kind of mischief they can get into. I bet it is worth repeating.
Kristen Arnett is a queer writer based in Florida. She is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), which was a New York Times best-seller, and the story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split/Lip Press, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. Her second novel, With Teeth, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in June.Thumbnail: David Waite